Tennessee: Doctors face language barriers; Providers find help from interpreters

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jan 3 14:14:03 UTC 2009

Providers find help from interpreters

Today's Topic: Doctors face language barriers

Even if both a doctor and a patient speak English, communication can
be a problem. The doctor asks questions. The patient tries to give
good answers, wondering all the while the meaning behind the
questions. The doctor has to consider the answers given, make a
diagnosis, possibly prescribe treatment and then trust that the
patient understood everything. The patient, meanwhile, has to remember
all the doctor's orders and make sure to follow the instructions.
Going in for medical care can be a meticulous experience in
communication for anyone.

Now, compound all those factors in a situation where the patient may
not fully understand English, and you get the full understanding of
how challenging the relationship can be between the doctor and the
patient. Fortunately, most medical providers, especially those who
serve large numbers of immigrants, understand the importance of
finding interpreters to help solve this problem. The goals in those
settings are all the same — figuring out how to serve the patient.

Up to the challenge

Language becomes just another factor among the numerous challenges of
administering treatment. But medical providers seem up to the
challenge. They're determined to find ways to make it work. It is
impossible not to consider the issue of language barriers between
doctors and patients without the reminder that Nashville is in the
midst of a debate about whether the city should adopt an English-only
amendment to the Metro Charter although exceptions for health and
safety can be made by the Metro Council. That's a matter of public

But in health-care settings, which is a separate issue, no one should
want situations where providers say the patient must be fluent in
English if the patient expects care. Everyone should agree that that's
not an ideal approach to medicine. The intent is to care for the

Quick decisions involved

Medical providers in Nashville will be valiantly trying to serve their
patients. And it should go without saying that in many of those cases,
the communication is vital. Quick decisions and serious illnesses can
be at issue. One quick bit of help for those clinics is to spread the
word that interpreters are needed. Ideally, the doctor or other
provider could speak the patient's language, but increasingly
providers have to hire help to solve the problem.

Volunteers who can interpret can be priceless to many of those who
give care. But it's also cause for everyone to support services that
deal specifically with providing language help. Immigration patterns
have made the world seem smaller. But as diversity in any community
grows, languages and customs bring challenges that can complicate
matters. The answer is to find ways to bridge those lines of
communication. Nashville is very fortunate to have dedicated
health-care providers at all levels who are intent on delivering care
regardless of the language necessary to the process.


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